The word “modernism” is intentionally ambiguous, and perhaps without realizing it is a fitting term for such a literary movement. In the most common usage it refers to the twentieth-century movement that began with the concept of the “modern” (obviously, since without this word how could one have modern-ism?) and ended up being a collection of authors and works characterized by efforts by the individual character and author to remold and reshape reality while reflecting its social ills. This is quite a simplistic analysis of an entire movement, but I will go into greater detail below.
Modernism took elements from realist literature in that it sought to realistically portray the growing social isolation and alienation of individuals caused by industrial capitalism. Characters are almost always withdrawn, and the entirety of the work contains a bitter cynicism bordering on absolute nihilistic despair. The main geographic sites for this movement were England and America post-Industrial Revolution, blooming during the periods between World War I and World War II, the main places where this system had taken hold. These first few decades of the new century begin with writers such as Joyce, Eliot, Pound D.H. Lawrence, who all stepped forward onto the literary scene by creating texts that were called highly experimental on content rather than merely form. This is the movement we now call “modernism,” though I don’t mean to use it in a reductive sense to imply that outside of these few head writers there exist no modernist movement.